Unfair Tie-Breaker Dooms Jets

Is it really fair to reward a team that had an easy schedule, but did not capitalize on it with a higher draft choice?

Yet that is what the NFL has been doing — for decades.

Starting with the 1976 draft, whenever two or more teams have finished a season with the same record, the draft order between or among them has been determined by "strength of schedule," with the team that played the easiest schedule getting to pick first.

But what is wrong with the alternative of using the same tie-breakers that have been in existence since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to break ties for division titles and playoff berths — especially since the owners added interconference tie-breaking procedures just last year?

(If two or more teams had both the same record and the same strength of schedule, the division or conference tie-breakers are used to determine draft order between or among them — but prior to last season, if such teams were not in the same conference, a coin flip was held).

This issue became relevant — perhaps even crucial — when the Jets shocked the Rams 23-20 on Sunday, for the biggest upset seen in the NFL in this millennium, leaving the Jets and the Jacksonville Jaguars with identical 1-13 records.

If both teams lose their remaining two games (leading to a situation under which there would be two 1-15 teams in the same season for the first time in the history of the 16-game schedule — and the last, if, as expected, the NFL adds a 17th game next year), the Jaguars will have played their games against opponents with a combined record of 124-131-1, while the Jets will have played their games against opponents with a combined record of 134-122 (through Week 15's games), a gap that is virtually impossible to be closed in the last two weeks, thus giving Jacksonville the top pick in the 2021 draft — and with it, presumably, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

But if the same tie-breakers that are used to break ties for division titles and/or playoff berths are observed instead, the Jets would get the top pick pursuant to their 0-12 conference record, which is worse than Jacksonville's 1-11 (the Jaguars opened the season with a home victory over division rival Indianapolis, while the Jets, as already noted, beat the Rams, a non-conference opponent).

Nine times since the regular season was lengthened to 16 games in 1978, two or more teams have tied for the top pick, with strength of schedule being used to identify the team getting to make that pick each time. In three of these instances, using the same tie-breakers used to break division or conference ties, or the new interconference tie-breakers approved in 2019, would have yielded a different outcome:

In 1983, the then-Houston Oilers lost a head-to-head game to Tampa Bay, but the Buccaneers got the number one pick due to having their played an easier schedule; they then traded that pick to the Patriots, who drafted running back-turned-wide-receiver-Irving Fryar while Houston had to settle for offensive tackle Dean Steinkuhler, who, like Fryar, went to Nebraska, in the ensuing 1984 draft.

(Fryar went to the Pro Bowl five times; Steinkuhler never did — so maybe the Bucs should have kept the pick?)

In 1985, the Bills had a better record against common opponents than Tampa Bay, but would have gotten the top pick had they not colluded with the Browns in the 1985 supplemental draft so that Cleveland could select Bernie Kosar therein. However, the Buccaneers would derive no benefit by inheriting the number one pick in the 1986 draft, because the player they selected, Bo Jackson, refused to play for them, ultimately ending up with the Raiders.

In 2014, Tampa Bay had a better record against common opponents than Tennessee, but got the top pick because they played an easier schedule than the Titans (Tampa Bay selected Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston; Tennessee, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, in the 2015 draft).

(There were also the anomaly of 1998, the year before "Cleveland 2.0" joined the league as an expansion team, rendering the three-way tie at the bottom of the 1998 standings moot, at least so far as determining the top selection was concerned.)

Whether the drop-off in talent between Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, the draft's consensus second overall pick, is as massive as the drop-off between Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale was in the 1985 NBA draft (the first draft in that league which featured a lottery to determine selection order among non-playoff teams) remains to be seen.

But the NFL is not the (thank heaven!) departed BCS or RPI. And it shouldn't even try to be.

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